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The Rebel Engraver: How 100-Year-Old Terrapin Stationers Stays on Top by Breaking All the Rules


Celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, Terrapin Stationers & Engraving Co. stands as one of New York's most inspiring small-business stories. Despite losing 75 percent of its revenue in a single year after the economy took a dive in 2008, this family business has not only stayed alive but is thriving, thanks to owner Ted Harrington's ingenuity and irreverent spirit (see: "WTF" notecards and other curse-happy paper goods, below).

In 1990, after working for the original company owner (a Russian silverware engraver) as a hand engraver for nearly 50 years, Ted's father Lloyd bought the company and ran it with his wife and son. The business remained healthy until 2008, but after the recession hit and the Harringtons' profit margins took a beating, Ted knew he needed to take the company in an entirely new direction.

Many called him crazy for keeping at it, but he managed to turn Terrapin's "WTF" moment into a new opportunity, shaking up the norms of the normally sophisticated engraved stationery business with irreverent messages that tapped into the Internet-age zeitgeist. He also started partnerships with major fashion brands, luring in a loyal band of celebrity clients in the process. Now the company marks its century in business on an upswing, one which Harrington credits to the punk spirit he and his design and fashion blogger friends bring to running a business in today's shaky economy.

Here, we take a look at some of the singular projects that have turned Terrapin into the modern stationer.

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Fuck is Just a Four-Letter Word

Three little letters are responsible for bringing Terrapin back to life from its low point in 2008. To attract attention for his struggling business, Harrington printed a handful of cards with "WTF" at the top and sent them to editor friends. One went to Michael Williams of A Continuous Lean, who encouraged Harrington to start selling the irreverent calling cards. With the WTF cards officially a hit, Harrington began a line of stationery featuring everyone's favorite four-letter word. "Fuck Off," "Fuck Yeah," "New York Fucking City" cards ensued—all beautifully engraved by the same company that once provided letterhead for Richard Nixon.

"We made it to 100 years! I never thought we would," says Harrington now. "I mean, we have [Givenchy's] Riccardo Tisci buying 'Fuck Off' stationery."

Despite appearances, Harrington's not gratuitously throwing around the F-word just to be funny. "I feel like a rapper, like, 'Fuck Smythson!'" he says of the tony British stationery manufacturer. "They're not doing anything to get people excited about stationery! It's the same old stuff: ladybugs, forks and knives, dragonflies, crowns—come on, man! I'm into beautiful things. Let's do something really exciting. I don't care if I never have to put 'Fuck' on anything ever again. I'm not committed to the 'Fuck' business model."

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Marc Jacobs and Bookmarc

As Terrapin regained its footing thanks to cheeky and informal formal stationery (as well as unexpected motifs like hand grenades and razor blades), "Marc Jacobs and [the brand's president] Robert Duffy and the team there saw what we were doing and they were excited, because they'd just opened Bookmarc," Harrington says. "Opening a bookstore when Barnes & Noble and other places were shutting them down was a wonderful opportunity. People thought they were crazy [just like] people thought I was nuts for staying in the stationery business."

The Todd Snyder Partnership

Harrington's desire to work with Todd Snyder, one of Terrapin's latest collaborations, was sparked by what the designer has done with Champion—a staple brand in Harrington's circa-1980s wardrobe. After an initial meeting the two teamed up to create a series of exclusive stationery illustrations that Harrington describes as "masculine stuff: boxing gloves and a scorpion—no fireflies." Look for them in Snyder's Japanese locations.

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Celebrity Clientele

Harrington's easygoing approach has created what he fondly refers to as a "clubby thing" among custom clients like Ben Affleck, Jonah Hill, playwright Israel Horovitz, and former Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir. (Harrington named Terrapin after the band's 1977 album Terrapin Station, and we spotted an undeniable glimmer in his eye when he told us about going backstage as Weir's special guest.) For Hill, Harrington created calling cards that read, "I met Jonah Hill and it was a total letdown." (Hill wanted something he could slip people when they approached him for photos and autographs, so he could decline the requests while still offering up something funny.) Describing Affleck as a gentleman, Harrington worked with the superstar on stationery for pre-Oscar notes, with the directive that it be "not too old and not too hipster." The result: two simple cards in gray and natural white.

In addition to celebrities, Harrington enjoys support from a tight-knit group of bloggers, art collectives, and small businesses. "This little community of people like Michael Williams, Sean Sullivan at The Impossible Cool, and the guys at Nepenthes—everyone is helping each other," says Harrington. "It's the punkest thing I can think of. People are saying, 'You know what, we're taking back commerce. We're going to make things, have fun, and help each other.' Going to venture capitalists is nice but it doesn't work for everyone. It's never worked for me. Bankers don't get what we're doing here, but designers do."

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